Cleverly conceived but clumsily executed, Nothing Left to Fear gives its audience a few things to admire but fewer to scare them.
Chronicling the tragic fate of a minister and his family after they relocate to an idyllic Midwestern town, Anthony Leonardi III’s feature debut skillfully avoids obvious scares in favor of a unique sort of pastoral dread, but the almost bifurcated structure of its setup and payoff alternately exhausts patience and erodes suspense. Nevertheless an imaginative, and often very thoughtful, combination of familiar genre conventions, Nothing Left to Fear offers a solid debut that turns intimate menace into sweeping, grandiose horror.
James Tupper (Grey’s Anatomy) plays Dan, a minister who uproots his wife Wendy (Anne Heche), two daughters Mary (Jennifer Stone) and Rebecca (Rebekah Brandes) and son Christopher (Carter Cabassa) to move to Stull, Kansas. Welcomed by the townspeople, including Pastor Kingsman (Clancy Brown), whom Dan is set to replace, the family quickly settles into its new home, marveling at the generosity and friendliness of the neighbors.
When Mary bites into a weird object apparently baked into a cake made by one of the townspeople, she and the rest of her family start experiencing weird visions and other strange occurrences. But after Rebecca befriends a local boy named Noah (Ethan Peck), who seems eager to give her some background about the town, she soon realizes that her family may have been brought to Stull for more nefarious purposes – one that not only threatens their lives but holds the key to something more sinister hiding beneath the town’s squeaky-clean surface.
Produced by former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, who’s making his first foray into filmmaking, Nothing Left to Fear feels like a fledgling effort in both good and bad ways: namely, that it aims to subvert genre expectations, and in so doing loses a portion of its visceral impact. The first hour is lackadaisical in its unveiling of the town, quietly introducing each plot development but unfortunately spending too much time on Rebecca’s curiosity and not enough on reasons for it to intensify. But the final 40 minutes is sort of a gauntlet, once it gets going; while the mythology is just vaguely enough rendered to allow for plot hole-filling pockets of time, once its true purpose is revealed, the characters are in a constant and powerful danger.
The design of the creature is hugely impressive, spreading like a sickly black mold over whatever it touches. But even when paired with the kind of herky-jerky physical movements that made monsters like Samara in The Ring such terrors, there’s an odd lack of suspense; its encroaching assault on the living feels more like an old-school zombie attack than some inescapable, primordial force of evil, but with too many interruptions that last too long. In one sequence, the characters make off in a car, and then stop in the middle of the street, for seemingly no reason other than to allow the monster to catch up. Moreover, this revelatory chase where everything is (sort of) explained goes on for what feels like 15 or 20 minutes, which takes the incremental heat of the first two-thirds of the film, turns it up to just shy of the boiling point, and then leaves it on the stove without supervision. The result of the sequence is neither terrifying nor haunting, which is why audiences may walk away feeling less strongly about the journey they’ve taken than its final destination.
Suffice it to say that numerous questions linger afterward, including why this town in particular plays host to an evil spirit, who outside the town knows about its secrets, and how often -- and how many -- families make their way to Stull only to disappear without anyone asking after them. But there are intriguing ambiguities that simmer alongside the maddening ones, like whether the eventual payoff to the family’s journey is in fact a tragedy or a triumph. Ultimately, however, Nothing Left to Fear is a mild disappointment -- as the foundation for a rich mythology that goes too unexplored to be memorable, much less meaningful, it leaves plenty left indeed to be afraid of.
Already in select theaters, Nothing Left to Fear arrives today on DVD and On Demand.